Published Jan 01, 20061. Roots Manuva Run Come Save Me (Big Dada/Ninja Tune)
Del F. Cowie: Over the years UK hip-hop artists have had a tough time getting the attention of heads in their native land, let alone those in hip-hop's birthplace. But the highly charismatic Roots Manuva is the prime candidate to change this. Rodney Smith's ragga meets hip-hop soundclash has forged a sound that can be seen as particularly English. His liberal use of English references on top of his Jamaican patois showcases his sense of humour. Yet it's his willingness to address his personal conflict between hedonism and spirituality that emerges as an important theme, representing a conceptual leap from the promise he showed on his Brand New Second Hand debut. While he acknowledges the past by featuring Rodney P of the pioneering London Posse (one of the first UK MCs to reject rhyming without affecting an American accent), it's clear from this record that Roots Manuva's rugged voice will be a major player in UK hip-hop's promising future.
Cam Lindsay: The best thing to happen to UK hip-hop since his debut album two years ago. Rodney Smith's inclusion of ragga and dub styles, plus those amazing video game bleeps and beats on "Witness", show he's a vital talent in other genres as well.
2. Dilated Peoples Expansion Team (Capitol)
Joshua Ostroff: Despite staking out very different territories, commercial and underground hip-hop have become lost in played-out tropes and clichés. But even though these former indie stalwarts have been brought up to the majors, Dilated Peoples have avoided the easy hits even as they've learned to have fun and deliver the party breaks. Of course, MCs Iriscience and Evidence never try to obscure their intelligence, waxing serious on topics like "Trade Money" and "War," while DJ Babu scratches out the funk, DJ Premier and ?uestlove lay out the game plan and designated hitters Tha Liks, Defari and Black Thought all knock it out the ballpark.
3. Prefuse 73 Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives (Warp)
Noel Dix: A complete voyage through aural bliss, Scott Herren mixes vocal samples with purified beats to create one of the most original sounding albums of the year. Cramming as much creativity as he can into each track, Herren manages to produce three or four songs in one by flipping the breakbeat several times, all with stunning results. The album hits monstrous peaks mainly through its instrumentals, but when MCs like Aesop Rock and MF Doom take to the mic they're engulfed by slick, electronic cuts and some of the most abstract and beautiful beats in hip-hop. This is definitely an album producers should tap into in hopes it will ignite their creative juices next time they consider coming at us with stale repetitiveness.
Cam Lindsay: A truly extraordinary record because it is so inventive, different and so much more than just hip-hop. Lying somewhere between DJ Shadow and Aphex Twin, this is the future of this genre.
4. Cannibal OxThe Cold Vein (Def Jux)
Cam Lindsay: Those upset over Company Flow's demise were given hope with this record. El Producto's new protégés stepped up with their debut album and brought hip-hop its sound of the future. And with El-P at the helm, MCs Vast Aire and Shamar spit out playful yet witty verses to some dark, weird tunes with the most creative beats in the business. The Cold Vein is a heavy album, especially now, because of how it portrays their hometown of New York. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, but it's good to face the truth every now and then.
5. Aesop Rock Labor Days (Def Jux)
Thomas Quinlan: On last year's Float, Aesop Rock introduced a larger audience to his deep-throated monotone and multi-layered, visually vibrant storytelling, but the beats did little to maintain interest in the music and its message. With his latest, producers Blockhead, Omega One and Aesop Rock go eons beyond Float, creating a musical backdrop that some might argue is the star of Labor Days. Yet, the music never fully succeeds in stealing the show. Rather, it motivates Aesop Rock to add more inflections into his vocals, making an already great voice better. As well, he maintains his ability to paint a potent picture, but this time around Aesop Rock takes advantage of some great concepts. With all the pieces in place Labor Days is on the shortlist of hip-hop classics.
Cam Lindsay: Trying to think of a more clear and concise MC from this year is impossible. This wonderful poet uses some nice thick beats and light string arrangements (with the help of producer Blockhead) to compliment his gifted rhymes without overshadowing them.
6. Buck 65 Man Overboard (Anticon)
Noel Dix: To view Buck 65 (aka Stinkin' Rich) as a typical hip-hop artist would be a crime, for you would only witness a portion of the whole picture. Once you allow the East Coast MC to bring you into his territory, the brilliance of Man Overboard really starts to sink in. Crafted as a continuing flow of low-key beats through no song titles, Buck takes you on an emotional but head-bobbing trip. He touches on topics from his mother's death to his awkwardness around girls, but somehow manages to come out on top and leave us with a sense of victory. Buck 65 pieced this album himself over a couple of years and the finished production is artistic beats and cuts lined with the skills of one of Canada's greatest MCs.
Thomas Quinlan: The third installment in the Language Arts series, Man Over Board is the album most likely to make Buck 65 a household name. Filled with emotionally revealing lyrics, original concepts, morphing dark space jazz, an old school aesthetic, and a beautiful ode to his mother, Man Over Board is a challenging - but rewarding - listen.
7. Hi-Tek Hi-Teknology (Rawkus)
Del F. Cowie: While many only noticed Hi-Tek's sonic prowess with his partner Talib Kweli on last year's Reflection Eternal, he's been around for a few years producing for his hometown associates Mood and groundbreaking 1997 indie single "Fortified Live." Over the years his soul-infused yet hard-hitting sound has matured impressively, as Hi-Teknology attests. With an array of varied guests, including usual suspects Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek's beats steal the show. Invigorating and funky, the tracks defy you not to bop your head and Hi-Tek puts his versatility on display alternating from raw minimalist offerings to surprisingly potent R&B that refrains from being corny. Though he's voiced apparent dissatisfaction with this project, Hi-Tek has been very much in demand this past year and Hi-Teknology marks his move into the respected producer ranks.
Joshua Ostroff: Comin' straight outta Cincinatti, indie producer Hi-Tek shows what the underground sounds like.
8. Mystic Cuts For Luck and Scars For Freedom (Good Vibe)
Denise Benson: Mystic comes outta Cali, busting rhymes of reality rather than attitude or puffery. That whole playa-gangsta shizness doesn't even figure here, nor is it mocked. Mystic is open, aware, observant and deeply honest, knowing there's no time for dissing when there are too many truths to be told. She's a warrior, a wordsmith, a sister, lover, and daughter who speaks of poverty and sexism, racist systems, drugs and dreams. During the super-catchy single "The Life," she's a cheerleader, effortlessly encouraging listeners to sing along as she chats of politics and power. The abstract, incredible "Ghetto Birds" sees her in deeply introspective mode; "A Dream" shares thoughts on the loss of her father; and "Neptune's Jewels" is one of the sweetest, sexiest love songs ever. Sure, working with ten plus producers leaves the album feeling a little disjointed, but in my opinion, this is one of the most significant hip-hop debuts in the past decade.
9. Hawd Gankstuh Rappuhs Emsees Wid Ghatz 2Hype 2Wype (Wordsound)
Thomas Quinlan: Beginning with simplistic noise for beats, the Hawd Gankstuh Rappuhs trio portray a number of characters that compete with each other for title of Most Retarded MC using a barrage of ridiculous freestyles and written verses, proclaiming things like "I'm an idiot savant/ scoring off the charts/ Guinness World Record for consecutive armpit farts." But as stupid as they portray themselves, the lyrics are witty, the beats are creative, and there's no lack of spontaneity. In fact, they're exactly what the scene needs right now. While HGR may mock everything you love and hate about hip-hop, they do it with a deep respect and knowledge of the music.
10. Missy Elliott Miss E So Addictive (Elektra)
Joshua Ostroff: Commercial hip-hop sucks, right? Not when Missy and Timmy lay down their wax. Underneath the R&B trappings, catchy hooks and guest MCs, Miss E So Addictive takes hip-pop past the next level to a new plane of existence. Timbaland outdoes himself on hit singles like "Get Ur Freak On" and "One Minute Man," crafting laser-guided sci-fi soundscapes that are hip-hop only in attitude. The difference between Tim and his fellow uber-producers (Dre excepted, as usual) is that Elliot's flow actually complements the music unlike, say, Bubba Sparxx who sounds oblivious to his urban-futurist background noise and proves once again how a female MC can rock the mic without resorting to cliché slut or diva poses. By liberally borrowing from electronica itself deeply indebted to hip-hop the dynamic duo have crafted a record that, in its most inspired moments, sounds like the 21st century pop music we always imagined.
John Smith Blunderbus (or In Transit) (Peanuts & Corn)
Sam Thompson: A Winnipeg MC who put Manitoba back on the hip-hop map with the most infectious rhymes & grooves in years.
Unspoken Heard Soon Come (7 Heads)
Master Control 3000 Presents: Secret Wars (Atomcandy)
Thomas Quinlan: Eliminate the two extremely long interludes which attempt to add a storied continuity to the album (but instead bog it down) and the shorter "ATOMCANDY," and the result is a classic release. A perfect mix of mostly hip-hop with ventures into drum n' bass, dub and reggae that impress upon Dr Octagon and Deltron Zero the best way to do the sci-fi thing.
Kardinal Offishal Firestarter Vol. 1 - Quest For Fire (MCA)
Joshua Ostroff: Who cares if he's Canadian, Kardinall rocks from the beaches to the boulevard.
Saul Williams Amethyst Rock Star (Columbia)
Awol One & Daddy Kev Souldoubt (Mean Street)
Thomas Quinlan: Daddy Kev's hyperactive hip hop beats kick Awol One's usually sedated (self) loathing up a couple of notches to a whole new energy level. Far from the lo-fi concoctions Awolrus has been known for in the past, Souldoubt (sold out) may be the one that gives this shapeshifting MC his notoriety finally.
Marley Marl Re-Entry (BBE)
Joshua Ostroff: The rare return to form by an old-school master, middle-aged Marl even brings Big Daddy Kane along for the ride.
2Mex B-Boys in Occupied Mexico (Mean Street)
Thomas Quinlan: 2Mex has proven himself time and time again as a member of the Visionaries, Of Mexican Descent, Mindclouders, and as a solo artist. Best known for his well-written wordplay and formidable flow, 2Mex demonstrates underground MC skills without being so elaborate as to alienate anyone.
N.E.R.D. In Search Of (Virgin)
Cam Lindsay: After producing everyone from Jay-Z to Britney, this trio stepped up and delivered an off-the-wall funkfest of some of the raunchiest beats and lyrics never to come from Kool Keith's mouth. It's too bad they decided to scrap the record and start all over for again for a U.S. release.
Baby Blue Sound Crew Private Party Vol. 2 (Universal)
Joshua Ostroff: A great mix for those of us without CD burners, throwing in some high-grade originals like Chocalir and Mr. Mims "Love Em All."
All Natural Second Nature (Thrill Jockey)
Governor Bolts A Crooked Mile (Low Pressure)
Thomas Quinlan: Originally released a few years ago as a cassette followed by a vinyl EP of select cuts, A Crooked Mile is finally getting the serious push it deserves with its remastered re-release. Paul the Apostle (aka Governor Bolts) is a skilled storyteller and veteran freestyler perfectly matched to DJ Moves's (of Hip Club Groove and Len) quirky beats. Still fresh and relevant today.
Various Factory Seconds (Peanuts & Corn)
Sam Thompson: The first compilation from Prairie-originated hip-hop masters Peanuts & Corn proves that Canadians can rock mics just as hard as our American cousins.
Declaime Andsoitisaid (Groove Attack)
Da Beatminerz Brace 4 Impak (Rawkus)
Joshua Ostroff: Grimy, occasionally melancholic and filled with guests from Caron Wheeler, Naughty By Nature and Pete Rock, DB dig up a great album.
K-Otix Universal (Bronx Science)
DJ Moves f. Birdapres Alleged Legends (Peanuts & Corn)
Thomas Quinlan: Another match made in Heaven, Alleged Legends walks the middle ground between Birdapres's vividly straight-forward storytelling and DJ Moves's left-of-centre production. Moves keeps the beats a little more boom-bap for Bird, but the signature touch of Moves brings out some of the freakiness in "the Ol' Birdy Dastard." Hopefully not just a one-off project.
D12 Devil's Night (Shady Recordings/Interscope)
Joshua Ostroff: Bringin' harmonicas to hip-hop, Eminem and hangers-on -- uh, I mean group try to outgross Slim Shady. Ridiculous, simply ridiculous.
Self-Scientific The Self Science (Sol/ Landspeed)
Tommy V & Sideshow Quarter Life Crisis (Homeles)
Thomas Quinlan: Essentially a Tommy V album, there is an endless number of guest appearances from friends and crew (the Sideshow) that will make Quarter Life Crisis a curiosity to anyone interested in the west coast underground. Occasionally Tommy V lets his flow get a bit sloppy, but this is easily the best collection of posse cuts to hit the street this year.
RZA Digital Bullet (Koch)
Joshua Ostroff: Another glimpse into the curious cranium of the futuristic Wu leader.
Mr Dead Metabolics II: Dawn of the Dead (Wordsound)
Thomas Quinlan: Intelligent horrorcore that just barely borders on horror, Dawn of the Dead has the seal of approval from star underground producers Prince Paul, Dan the Automator and Scott Harding, who all contribute a track. As expected, a great album that only loses steam on two songs and a couple of poor guest verses.
Yesterday's New Quintet Angles Without Edges (Stones Throw)